Law in the Internet Society

Social Networks and the Internet Society

-- By ScottMcKinney - 07 Dec 2009


Everyday, the internet society becomes more and more interconnected in a complex web of social networks. Users now have the ability to easily interact with their social networks anytime and anywhere through the use of internet-capable smart phones. As the privacy ramifications of social networks have been covered on this wiki in detail (see Makalkika's paper, Kamel's paper, Heather's paper, and Donna's paper), this paper seeks to explore the possible cognitive ramifications of social networks.

A recent paper by Viktor Mayer-Schönberger raises several interesting questions: In the context of open-source, anarchist production of software, can reliance on social networks actually in some ways inhibit the production of innovative code?


Mayer-Schönberger argues that social networks produce a phenomenon known as groupthink. Groupthink occurs when a social group becomes extremely cohesive and acquires the ability to function together with minimal explanations. A group is especially vulnerable to groupthink once it becomes insulated from outside influences. The negative effect of group think is that members of the group avoid radical views and are naturally discouraged from “outside-the-box” thinking—as this would disrupt the cohesion of the group.

Open-source products like Linux and Firefox can theoretically be modified by anyone. As Eben covered in class, thousands of programmers throughout the world can work to debug, fine tune, and innovate open-source programs. Hopefully, the best solutions find their way to the top. However, sometimes the groupthink mentality brought about by social networks may actually inhibit open-source development. For instance, a product like Firefox might develop quickly at first, but as the group of developers become more interconnected, innovations become more miniscule. Now, most changes to Firefox are extremely minor tweaks. Instead of huge jumps forward, radical individual innovations are either naturally discarded by the group, or not put forward at all because the individual does not want to stir the pot. Fortunately, it is clear that there is no link between the downturn in radical development over time and open-source development, because all major software projects naturally experience their most dynamic growth in the beginning stage of development, followed by progressively more-minor tweaks.

Mayer-Schönberger and others also point out that with open-source software, a “lock-in” effect can occur. For instance, when Facebook opened up its API it quickly overtook Myspace, as third party developers became free to develop applications to work with Facebook (Myspace uses a notoriously closed system). Essentially, Facebook got thousands of programmers to develop its site for free; this open-source system worked incredibly well for Facebook. Unfortunately, after years of development using the API, it’s now much harder for Facebook to change its API, because thousands of applications within the Facebook community rely on the old API, and are essentially entrenched or “locked in” to the old way of doing things. Combine the locked in effect with groupthink, and programmers may not be as likely to invest time in radical innovations, because these innovations would simply not be implemented into the existing system. While the above hypothesis likely holds true for a closed web service like Facebook, it does not take into complex software packages such as Linux or X, which seem to have survived and flourished without being “locked in.”

Positive Developments

Despite purported negative implications of groupthink, social networks and social media have positive effects on human cognitive processes and society in general. Social network users are constantly bombarded with a variety of information. People often worry that encountering too much information reduces their ability to retain it. However, a study by Sanda Erdelez shows that this is not the case. In fact, people who accidentally discover or “bump into” random information are generally able to recall that incident (it is not lost in the shuffle). Furthermore, social networks and media provide a limitless supply of unexpected opportunities. When is the last time that you discovered something new and interesting—something you would otherwise likely never have considered—through trivial use of an online social network? It happens to me all of the time. As a result, I learn new things, appreciate ideas from a different point of view, and generally expand my horizons.

Despite warnings that social networks reduce critical thinking, social networks have begun to be used effectively within the medical community. Sermo is changing the way doctors think and practice medicine. It is a social network open exclusively to doctors. When a doctor comes across a medical condition that the doctor may not recognize, he or she can post a blog question to the medical community. The community of doctors rates the usefulness of the post, can answer multiple choice polls, and can leave individual comments. Through this system, doctors are able to call upon the knowledge and experience of 110,000 (and counting) fellow practitioners. Unknown maladies are quickly diagnosed, and doctors quickly learn the “best” solution to both common and rare medical problems. Asking someone else how to do something may not be “critical thinking,” but it is surely extremely beneficial in the medical field. Sermo may produce an environment in which the need for innovation is diminished, but the social utility it creates surely outweighs any negative cognitive impact.


As a former computer programmer who worked on large projects, it seems apparent to me that at least some of what Mayer-Schönberger suggests rings true. More often than not, the truly innovative solutions to a coding dilemma come from the lone programmer, not from teamwork or an environment in which individual programmers know that their ideas will be scrutinized by committee. However, peer produced, open source programming has repeatedly proven to be extremely effective, and for many types of applications it is clearly the best way to develop software. While it may be true that the groupthink mentality, combined with the natural “locked in” nature of the net leads to less radical thinking in specific situations, does this negative outweigh the positives brought about by social networks (privacy concerns aside)? No. Now, virtually everyone has the ability to educate themselves on any topic and communicate with the entirety of humanity.

The groupthink phenomenon is simply the natural way in which humans function, and social networks are here to stay. We should therefore focus on educating the public of the dangers and existence of groupthink within social networks, encourage them to work to broaden their horizons, and use the education system to promote critical and radical thinking beginning at an early age.

# * Set ALLOWTOPICVIEW = TWikiAdminGroup, ScottMcKinney

Hi Scott,

I enjoyed reading your paper and thought you did a good job of discussing the benefits of social networking sites. The groupthink phenomenon is fascinating (albeit often disturbing) and I thought it was interesting how you applied it to social networking sites. However, it seemed like you might be discussing two distinct types of sites: educational social networking sites that are specifically designed to exchange knowledge within a particular community (like Sermo), and general social networking sites like Facebook. It seems to me that the balancing test you use at the end - (While it may be true that the groupthink mentality, combined with the natural “locked in” nature of the net leads to less radical thinking, does this negative outweigh the positives brought about by social networks (privacy concerns aside)?)- might change depending on what type of site you are talking about. It would also be interesting to hear more about how sites like Facebook promote critical and radical thinking.

-- JuvariaKhan - 10 Dec 2009

Hi Juvaria,

I'm glad you enjoyed my paper. Your comment about the differentiation between social networking sites is correct: different types of social networks carry with them different benefits and drawbacks, and consequently affect cognitive processes differently. However, I wouldn't divide the types of networks I'm talking about into only two groups (social and educational). Really, there are many degrees and many types of online social networks: social, educational, and everything in between. In the context of open-source programming, the social network at issue may not be what one would traditionally think of as a traditional online social network like Myspace. I'll try to make these distinctions more obvious in my next revision of the paper.

-- ScottMcKinney - 30 Dec 2009


Interesting paper. I hadn't considered groupthink effects within social networks, but I suspect you and the study you cite are correct that it is problematic. I have no specific suggestions on the current content of your essay except to note it might be helpful if you talked briefly about the ways to fix the problem you identified (e.g. those discussed in the final link, or others you know of). You do a good job of identifying a problem and convincing the reader it is a problem worth addressing, so it would be helpful if you lent that same descriptive skill to suggesting how to solve the problem we readers are now attending to. A few sentences would accomplish that, one of which could incorporate the link you are citing now. Just a thought. Nice work, it reads well.

-- BrianS - 06 Jan 2010

Scott, I really enjoyed reading your paper. The existence of groupthink within the context of social networking sites is a really interesting concept, and I think that you raise an important issue of the value of two potentially competing types of good: access to information, and high-quality, innovative programming. One question that your paper raised for me is how (and if) Sermo is different than social network sites as relates to groupthink; in other words, does the fact that Sermo is used by a professional community immunize it from groupthink, or does the value of information is provides mean that groupthink simply isn’t that important?

-- HeatherStevenson - 08 Jan 2010

Brian, Thanks for your comments. I'm incorporating your suggestion into the final draft.

Heather, I appreciate your comments. As for Sermo, the fact that Sermo is used by a professional community does not immunize it from groupthink. In fact, groupthink could adversely affect Sermo, in that it might lead the medical community to become more centralized and lead to less critical thinking by individual doctors. For instance, when a doctor comes across a difficult medical dilemma, instead of trying to devise an innovative solution to the problem, he might consult Sermo and assume that the Sermo's solution to his problem is the best solution available. At that point, he stops thinking critically and goes along with the group. In this scenario, critical thinking and a chance to invent a better solution are lost. However, in my opinion, the value of the information and the service that Sermo provides far outweighs any negative impact. Groupthink within Sermo is still important, but as I said in my paper, "the social utility it creates surely outweighs any negative cognitive impact."

-- ScottMcKinney - 13 Jan 2010

Scott, much like Brian, I had never really thought about groupthink as it relates to the social networking context. Quite a novel topic. I definitely can identify with the results of Sandra Erdelez's study. TI definitely think that my overall information retention has increased since my exposure to various social networks. Regarding the lock-in effect that groupthink tends to cause in software development... what are developers doing to try and combat this effect? I'm no programmer (and don't know that much about it), so I have absolutely no clue, but I feel like there have to be some ways to program from the outset to avoid this lock-in effect.

-- EdwardBontkowski - 15 Jan 2010



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r13 - 07 Sep 2011 - 00:44:01 - IanSullivan
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